Exterior of D.C. School
Photo by Darrow Montgomery.

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After nearly a year of remote learning, DC Public Schools is welcoming students back to campus on Tuesday. About 9,000 students and 1,800 teachers are expected to return to school buildings. It was a gut-wrenching decision for many families who weighed whether to send children back. 

Reopening schools has been a source of great stress and conflict from the start, when unions representing teachers, principals, and nurses first accused the mayor’s team of excluding them from decision-making around safety measures. Strife between school officials and teachers continued into the start of in-person instruction on Tuesday.

While DC Public Schools eventually reached an agreement with the Washington Teachers’ Union over reopening schools in December, the teachers’ union has accused school leaders of breaching it. An independent arbitrator ultimately cleared DC Public Schools to reopen schools this week, in response to a formal complaint issued by the union. 

Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee applauded the ruling, saying “schools are safe, and we know the best place for students to learn is in the classroom.” He also pointed to a new report from epidemiologists affiliated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says rapid spread isn’t as high in schools as it is in congregate living facilities or high-density worksites. 

The ruling, however, delayed two schools— Calvin Coolidge Senior High School in Takoma and Watkins Elementary School in Capitol Hill—from reopening until walk-throughs determined they are safe. The ruling also said DC Public Schools has to provide more data about staffing, according to the union.          

The latest escalation came Monday night, when the District filed a temporary restraining order in D.C. Superior Court in order to try and prevent the Washington Teachers’ Union from striking or interrupting in-person learning. “Without this injunction, the District—and more importantly, its most vulnerable youth—will suffer profound and irreparable harm,” according to the court filing.     

Washington Teachers’ Union President Elizabeth Davis calls the temporary restraining order “unnecessary” and “premature” because the union is not calling for a strike or work stoppage.  

“While WTU is gravely concerned about the safety of its members, it’s also well aware of the prohibition of D.C. law against teachers’ strikes,” said Davis at a Tuesday morning press conference. She was joined by Sherice Muhammad of McKinley Technical High School and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. “Accordingly, WTU is advising its members who have been assigned in person to return to their school schools today. And of course, WTU has also advised members—as it continues to work with our partners—that a strike would be unlawful and will have serious negative consequences for them and for our union.” 

The union will hold a vote in the coming days to decide how the union and its 4,000 members will proceed, as it is largely against reopening schools right now. The vote could authorize the union’s executive board to call a strike for a date that has yet to be determined. 

“However, the vote itself is not a strike, nor is the vote itself prohibited by D.C. law,” said Davis. “An injunction would be harmful and against the public interest because it would cause confusion and place members in fear, even if they have legitimate reasons to take leave,” she added.

The union is calling for second walk-throughs in schools that includes teachers and parents, after hearing from members that the first ones were sometimes inadequate. Teachers would like to confirm assurances they got during first walk-throughs with their own eyes, for example. It’s clear that the union believes it’s just not safe to reopen schools because of the level of transmission in the District. (The executive has not released metrics for when schools would return to 100 percent virtual learning.) 

Some District leaders are clearly frustrated by teachers. The Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development and mayor’s chief of staff, John Falcicchio, subtweeted teachers last night, saying “All of the workers vaccinated as part of the Preservation of Societal Functions have been working in-person throughout the pandemic — except one.” He’s now being ratio-ed by teachers and their supporters. This is the second time he’s tweeted about reopening schools. The last time the union responded directly to his tweet. He then replied, “I would never blame teachers.”

The union also has support from some District leaders. “This is wrong,” said Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George. “The best way to get our teachers back in the classroom is by building trust and making it safe, not through court restraining orders.”

—Amanda Michelle Gomez (tips? agomez@washingtoncitypaper.com

The Department of Corrections: In Monday’s newsletter, I wrote that the Council never held a hearing on the District’s direct response to the coronavirus pandemic. It turns out, the health committee held one in October, where DC Health Director Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt was the lead witness. (She did not show up to Monday’s roundtable about vaccinations due to scheduling conflicts.) Thanks for keeping me honest, readers.      

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